More surprised than sad, many suburban Catholics expressed admiration and understanding for Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign and now look toward the church's future with hope and a little uncertainty.
The 85-year-old pontiff shocked the world Monday morning by announcing he would step down as leader of the Roman Catholic Church because he no longer had the mental and physical strength to carry out his duties. It was the first time in nearly 600 years a pope has resigned, as the position is considered a lifelong commitment.
Catholics in the suburbs• More than 3.3 million Catholics live in the Chicago area. There are about 2.3 million within the Chicago Archdiocese (which includes Cook and Lake counties), 457,000 in the Rockford Archdiocese (an 11-county area that includes Kane and McHenry counties) and roughly 604,000 in the Joliet Archdiocese (a seven-county area that includes DuPage and Kendall counties).
• Catholics make up 39 percent of the combined population of Cook and Lake Counties.
• Northern Illinois is home to 581 Catholic parishes (356 in the Chicago Archdiocese, 105 in Rockford Archdiocese and 120 in Joliet Archdiocese).
• In Cook and Lake counties, 49 percent of Catholics (1.13 million) are white, 42 percent (969,000) are Hispanic, 3 percent (66,000) are black, 5 percent (126,000) are Asian/other, and 1 percent (12,000) are multiracial.
Source: Archdiocese of Chicago, Rockford and Joliet
Bishop David J. Malloy, of the Diocese of Rockford, said the announcement came out of the blue, and he heard about it the way most suburban Catholics did -- on the news Monday morning.
"It must have been a tremendous sacrifice for the Holy Father. I'm grateful for everything he's done for us," said Bishop Malloy, whose diocese covers an 11-county region including Kane and McHenry counties.
With millions of Catholics living in the Chicago area, the shocking news rippled through the community.
"I was surprised, but my other thought was, 'Good for him,'" said the Rev. Bill Zavaski, of St. James Parish in Arlington Heights. "I think the guy's smart. I really do. It's such a demanding job. The demands on Holy Week (which begins March 24) are incredible for the pope."
Many Catholics remember the final, frail years of Pope John Paul II's life and find it commendable for Pope Benedict to step aside before his health deteriorates further.
"It takes an awful lot of strength and humility to announce that we don't have the strength, and someone else needs to do the job. It's not a sign of failure in any way, shape or form," said Clare Titus, business manager of the school at St. Margaret Mary Church in Algonquin.
The Rev. Dan Whiteside, from St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove, said he hasn't heard of anyone being upset with the pope's decision.
"If anything, I've heard more people comment that it makes more sense, and that it's actually healthy for the church," he said. "I've got to think that he might be wanting to set the precedent. That it's OK to do this. For some reason, there's a feeling that there will be continuity."
Early on in his papacy, he had a reputation for being "hard nose," said Father Thomas Milotam of Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville. But he said Catholics have come to love him as a gentle, loving and faithful man.
That includes Tom Cordaro, a justice/outreach minister at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville. He lauded Pope Benedict's bold move, saying it took humility, courage and a love for the church that extended beyond himself.
"As we look back in history, we will see this as one of the most important and enduring legacies of his pontificate. Popes can see the church is bigger than them, and that is awesome," Cordaro said.
Cardinal Francis George also admired the pope's "great courage."
"Pope Benedict XVI has, in all circumstances, placed the will of God for the good of the Church before every other consideration," Cardinal George said in a statement.
Just as with any governing group, a change in leadership creates some uncertainty. While it remains to be seen what, if anything, will change, many suburban Catholics weren't worried.
"With every change, there are things you lose that you like. There are things that you get that you don't like. And there are things that you never imagined that are even better. That's just part of it," Titus said.
The incoming pontiff has some huge challenges ahead, said Cordaro, who thought it'd be interesting to see the logistics of having a current and former pope alive at the same time.
"In a general sense, the constant challenge is, how do you make new and innovative that which has been passed down to us from the ages?" he said. "In the U.S., the public perception of the Catholic Church -- both in the media and in society -- is that it needs some serious work. I think the challenge for the new pope is to hold onto that which is fundamental to our Catholic identity but at the same time not become defensive, not become insulated, not become a fortress against the culture and outside world."
Zavaski, who plans to retire at the end of the year, trusts the church's leadership to pick the right successor. In the meantime, he said Pope Benedict can still have an influence.
"(Pope Benedict) is an incredible writer. Maybe in his last years, he could spend his time praying and reflecting and writing," Zavaski said.
Bishop Daniel Conlon of the Joliet Archdiocese also looks forward with confidence.
"Because the Church was founded by Christ and lives by the Holy Spirit, we have no reason to worry about the future," he said in a statement. "Our task, as members of the Body of Christ, is to seek the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit for the cardinals and to pray for a peaceful future for Pope Benedict."
Pope Benedict plans to step down Feb. 28, and it's expected that a new pope will be elected at the Vatican by the end of March. Local Catholics should not view this process as something that only happens in Rome, Bishop Malloy said.
"That's the last step," he said. "We need to be a part of it here and now, and we ask, in all of our parishes and all of our homes ... that there is a spiritual unity that's going on, and we pray each day about this. Let's make this to be a moment of intense prayer as a successor to Peter (the Apostle) is going to be chosen."
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Josh Stockinger contributed to this report.